Citizen by Claudia Rankine: the reader, the text & the design

Citizen: An American Lyric

By Claudia Rankine

Note: the photo above is visible. Frankly, I want this book to speak for itself so I deliberately used a photo in shades of gray, which is meant to represent a sense of nothingness but also openness.

 Part 1: Citizen as a Text

This book is very hard to pin down.  It’s marketed as a poetry book, but it’s not really that, but it’s definitely not fiction in that there isn’t much of a plot or narrative.  The category on the back of the text lists it as “Poetry/Essay”. Nearly all of the many awards listed on the back cover are for poetry, but it was also a finalist for a book award in criticism. I actually was under the impression until recently that this book is newer than it is because I had to go on a waiting list at my public library to get even the e-book version, but it’s more than five years old, published in 2014.

Parts of this book are a verbal collage with snatches of quotes from different sources, and then there are images of artwork and photography included as well as transcripts of films. And there may be more…just when you’ve finished this book, the references section make you feel like you’re looking at a museum exhibit catalog, and you start over again. 

I am not including this in my poetry column because the idea with that is that you enjoy a poem during a quiet moment with your coffee (or beverage of choice), and this book is better read in larger chunks. I don’t know what else to call them. There are larger sections of the book marked off by Roman numerals, and page numbers, but that’s it. Personally, I read until I had to stop…meaning I wanted to go on, but my brain wouldn’t let me.

 I actually read it in more, shorter chunks than I had intended because it is intense, and I needed to go on to something else so that my brain could relax.   

I even got caught off guard by the speaker (poetry speak for narrator). From looking at the cover, I had assumed that the speaker is male, but it didn’t take me long to realize that the speaker is female. Yes, I know, the name of the author is clearly female. This book is trying to mess with your head, and for me, it does. 

The cover and much of the content of the book connote, or say directly, that this book is about Black America.  But something about it cut right through to me and made me think about my insecurities: when I think there is judgment, whether there is or not, and when I know there is, but for some reason I feel I can’t respond. 

 These are emotions we don’t like to think about much, or at least I don’t.  I get impatient with them because there is nothing I can do about them.  I also associate ignoring them with being grown up.  You know, we’re supposed to get on with it, not sit around and feel our feelings all the time.

There’s something to be said for that, getting on with it.  If we spend the time we have on the earth wallowing in our feelings, aren’t we wasting that time?  And I certainly know that for every emotion that I have, there are millions of people who have walked this earth who have to endure 10X, or 100X what I have.   

Regardless, this book is important because even for the short time that you are reading it, you become aware of those feelings.  For me, I think taking a moment to exercise this part of my being is good.  I probably need to slip it out of the box every so often, before I quickly slip it back.  I certainly feel reminded to respond with a bit more empathy to the person next to me, whether that’s in line at the post office or in the next car on the road. 

This book won’t take a lot of your time in the traditional sense, whether you can take the whole thing at once or break it into smaller pieces.  Don’t try to read it with your fully conscious mind, and don’t try to follow the narrative.  There are whole sections that I know I definitely do not understand completely, and I don’t think the reader is meant to.  Let it just seep in, go back to it later, or don’t.  I do think this is a book worth purchasing and keeping out so that you can dip in and out of it over a period of time.  Just don’t try to put the words in there; let the subconscious come in.  The inclusion of artworks help, and when you think you are finished with that, you’ll find the multimedia stuff.

The book in your hands is only the beginning. 

Sorry if it sounds fey; I don’t know a better way to explain it.  Feel it, don’t think it.

Part 2: How to Read Citizen 

This book crosses a line between narrative and a collection.  The section breaks gave me a sense of a narrative thread, or a storyline.

There is no table of contents and no subtitles beyond the section numbers. There are page numbers; that’s it. There are blank pages and partly filled pages.

One of the first rules of informed reading is to always pay attention to the titles.  If the author took the time to put them there, they are important.  If you are feeling a bit confused because there aren’t enough subtitles, assume that is intentional as well.

The book is so short and the sections are so short that you might imagine that this is a quick read, but I could not manage reading this book for more than 30 minutes at a time.  It is too intense.  So this book is ideal for those times when your attention span is short or your time is very limited.  If you are a multi-book reader who likes to read for long “sits”, then I suggest pairing it with something that is longer and lighter for your sustained reading. 

As you read, you will also feel more oriented (I think) if you  try to imagine the speaker as a character.  I don’t want to tell you what image I got in my mind because this book is so highly personal, and I think the person you imagine depends on who you are, but what I will say is don’t get hung up on the image on the cover, which kind of makes you think of a man.  Or does me anyway.  What I found inside the books is so deliberate; I can’t help but wonder how deliberate the cover art is.  If it is deliberate, I would say the author is trying to keep you off kilter…don’t be afraid to go your own way. 

Poetry can confuse people because so much is left unsaid, but the reason it is cool is because you can just take those “silences” as empty spaces and fill your own stuff in.

 Another nice thing about this book is that when you are completely lost, the author has thrown in some images of visual art to help you along…or possibly mess you up. Either way, something happens.  The visual art included (by a range of authors…such a cool method) is abstract, so you’ll still have to think, but it will lighten your cognitive load a little, if you know what I mean.


Part 3: Citizen as an Art Object

I have had the post on this book scheduled to go live on November 13th for several weeks now, and I had a draft of the post up by Thursday, November 7th. A major library sale was scheduled in my area to start on the 8th, so I planned that day as an “in the field” day.

Part of my day included a visit to a used bookstore that I haven’t been to in at least a decade, and my jaw dropped when I ran across a brand new, pristine copy of Citizen. I’m really glad that I did because the experience of this book as a paper book is considerably different from my experience with this book as an e-book from the public library, which is what I read and used to write Part 1.

I’m a little bit stunned, and while I know there is something to say here, I’m not sure what. I am certainly prompted, however, to rethink the idea of the meaning of “book”.

By rethinking, I don’t mean “reconsider”. I mean think about it in a whole new different way with ideas I never conceived before. What’s the word for that?

I can be vocal on social media when people dredge up that tired dichotomy of e-book v. print book, and in reality, whether they admit it or not, most people read a combination.

Many sensible people have realized, and freely discuss, that the choice is really on a case-by-case basis, and depends of both the mental mindset and physical realities of the individual. A book can be harder to hold in an impaired hand than an e-reader, but on the other hand, some people get headaches from e-readers. For me, it’s an issue of practicality: E-readers for travel, print books for home; and text type: A novel or straightforward nonfiction text works on an e-reader, but if I need to study the text or make efficient use of illustrations, I prefer the print version. I don’t like graphic novels on e-readers at all.

Citizen is a whole different ball game when it comes to the experience of an e-book and a print book, and I think it’s going to be the forerunner of a new thing: a book that in and of itself is an art object. The layout, the design, even the weight of the paper and the type of binding become all become elements of experience and comprehension. The book as an object and a more important player in the interaction between the reader and the text. In ways we haven’t had before, we will have the interaction between the reader, the text, and the design.

When you pick up the print version of Citizen, it is heavy for it’s small size; it has a heft in your hand that you don’t expect. It’s a rectangle that reminds me of the cover of The Beatles White Album only not quite that plain, and when you look closely, the image of the ripped off sweatshirt hood has wires…the kind of wires you see in an underwire bra…hanging out. At first you think it’s a mistake, because the wires are necessary to get the image in the photo, then you realize that there is no reason for them to show, and it’s deliberate. If a bra does that, you throw it away, and of course hoodies don’t come that way, they have to be made that way.

Get where I’m going?

Throughout the book, some pages are full of print, some have little or no print. Images appear randomly, and as a surprise. After reading this on my monotone Kindle, I am surprised by the eye-popping color images are. I think the type might be a little gray rather than full-on black as well.

You can and should try to read this book in the traditional manner at least once, and by that I mean from page 1 until the end. But then put the book on your coffee table for a while and see what happens.

For me, every time I pick up this book, I am compelled to dip in and dip out. I find myself looking at different pages, looking at the images and reading bits and pieces. Sometimes, I read the text below the image (if there is one), as a caption, and sometimes I find myself reading individual “chunks” as vignettes or poems. In some cases, the images seem to look at the text suspiciously, especially when the book is held half open, so I am compelled to wonder why.

When you read the book “straight through” (even though it appears short, for me, it was way too intense to read in one, or even two, sittings), there are section numbers that serve as vague signposts to guide you through, if a vague signpost is a thing. Anyway, there are not titles on individual pages, so where ever you dip in, there you are. You won’t really know unless you remember this section from an earlier reading or are able to marry the print with nearby images, if any (they are random and unevenly placed in a manner that I’m guessing is meant to surprise.

But again, you are encouraged to dip in and slip out.

I am grateful for the page numbers because without them, there is no other way to read and discuss this book in a group. The first thing we would have to do is take time to go through and put page numbers in.

The heavy stock of the paper seems to encourage me to flip, just as I would with one of those old-fashioned “flip books” that creates a crude animation, but here it is the text that becomes animated, while the images jump out and bring the show to a halt (see below for an example of a flip book).

Free Read

Quick Read

Below is an interview with Jeff Shotts, the editor of Citizen with Artworks Blog, from the National Endowment for the Arts, who partly funded this unique book. If you are an American, that means your tax dollars helped pay for this!

Click here to read “A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Editing Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Part 4: Citizen in Context

As discussed above, this book is an art object in itself and in addition to the text inside.

The reading of the this book is meant to be “experiential”. You are meant to read, hear, see, and most of all, feel.

I recommend that you confront this book head on and try to make your own meaning of it before reading the rest of this article, but don’t worry, you can always go back.

And this is the Internet. The Internet is forever. It will all be here.

When you’re ready, there are video, audio and written expansions of this book, including readings by Rankine, background interviews, and teaching resources.

Some sections of Citizen consist of “Transcripts of Situations videos with John Lucas”. To see the videos along with the poetry in audio, click here to go to Claudia Rankine’s website and click “situations”.

I’m not going to tell you where they are. Despite meticulous citations of the numerous art works included in this book, the films are not cited. I take that as deliberate: you need to go back and search.

News Report on Citizen from PBS

Free Listen

Free Listen

Free Resource

Here are some free teaching resources from Gray Wolf Press, the publisher of Citizen.